Updated: Oct 4, 2018
Do you even know if you're on a diet?
Have you been on a diet in your life?
Are you still dieting?
What if I told you that the process of dieting of all things was possibly the reason you’ve gained weight!
That's right dieting is probably doing you more harm than good.
A lot more harm.
That’s right. The research is showing 90-95% of all diets fail, and those numbers are probably an underestimation of the real number, plus, the irony of dieting is that it is the greatest pre-curser to weight gain meaning many of those who diet end up with more weight in the long term.
I want to show you some more of the possible dangers of dieting that you may not have realised and then some solutions on how you can potentially avoid them.
But first, the crazy thing is that many engage in dieting and don’t even realise they are actually dieting. Could you be one of them?
ARE YOU A DIETER?
Here are some indicators that you might be dieting!
1. Are you preoccupied with your weight or body shape? Signs of this could be monitoring your weight by stepping on the scales, using a fitness tracker, or weighing your food.
2. Are you trying to lose weight? This could be by restricting food groups, quantities or timings that you eat. It can also include exercising with the intention of weight loss.
3. Do you ever feel guilt or shame attached to your eating experience?
4. Are you putting off anything in your life in the hope that if you lose weight you’ll be ready? Some common examples could are waiting to book a holiday, holding back on dating, and not shopping for clothes that fit you properly.
You might well have answered yes to one or more, and thought to yourself, but sure, everybody thinks those things, and the sad thing is that you’d almost be right. Our culture is so entrenched in dieting culture that it doesn’t even think these thoughts are abnormal because dieting is supposedly healthy. Dieting has been normalised to the point where it seems absurd that you wouldn’t think like this. I mean everybody thinks like this….right?
WHY DO WE THINK DIETING IS HEALTHY?
Well to start, we live in a world with an alarming amount of obese people who are suffering many ailments and the blame, on the surface at least seems to align perfectly with the cause being the fat. The rhetoric is therefore ‘fat’ is dangerous and so if you care about your health then you need to do everything within your power to not be fat.
Health systems are still using measures such as the BMI to define our parameters of health and what is a safe and unsafe weight we can be. In short, the Body Mass Index or BMI for short, divides your weight by your height squared and says if you are outside of the narrow margin then you are either unhealthily under or overweight.
But get this, it is an overly simplistic and inaccurate system.
Well it doesn’t account for your age, or your gender, it is unable to distinguish between your fat and muscle ratio, and it doesn’t account for distribution of fat on your body amongst other shortcomings……
…..but this is one principle method of how the medical community define what is healthy or not! By using a system that doesn’t work.
BEING FAT= UNHEALTHY. BEING THIN=HEALTHY. DIETING=PURSUING HEALTH
If you’re someone who considers themselves pretty intelligent and clued in to nutrition then the chances are you’re probably of the opinion that being fat is always unhealthy and that thin/lean/trim/ripped, whatever, equals healthy so therefore losing weight is how to combat being fat so dieting must be the solution.
That’s the message we’ve been told. That dieting is healthy. Virtuous. Associated with high will power and determination and anything other than the skinny ideal is regarded as just lazy.
So fat is the problem.
Hold on there.
Let me briefly state that fat has not been proven as the cause of all the things you think it is the cause of. Fat is absolutely very often correlated to poor health but not proven as the cause. Therefore tackling fat is not the solution. Tackling the health problem is the solution. Each health problem is different and fat can obviously be a potential contributor and I’ll touch more on this in future posts but for now it’s a huge paradigm shift that I’m suggesting to try to prioritise someone’s health before their weight. (Check out the book Body Respect by Linda Bacon for why fat isn’t the danger you currently think it is)
So for now, even if that’s too radical of a message for you that fat is not always unhealthy, let me continue to share why dieting can be downright dangerous for you and what the your next sensational diet won’t tell you are the possible consequences.
THE 9 DANGERS OF DIETING:
1. MOST DIETS FAIL- So, as I already stated, the failure rate of diets is around 90-95% and again, that is estimated to be a conservative figure. This is potentially the most important statistic because it shows the undeniable majority fail at diets. At some point we as a culture need to step back and assess that if so many people can’t do something that it’s more likely the system is at fault and not the people.
2. DIETS CAN LEAD TO EATING DISOREDERS- It may also surprise you to know that dieting has been shown to have the highest risk associated with developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders include those such as Bulimia, Anorexia, and Binge Eating Disorder.
3. DIETING MEANS YOU THINK CONSTANTLY ABOUT FOOD- Your preoccupation with food increases meaning it’s all you think about or better put, all you try not to think about! With dieting your hunger naturally increases as does your preoccupation with food, as you have thoughts about it all day and maybe even in bed at night.
A famous study called The Minnesota Starvation Experiment which took place in 1944 documents just this. It took a group of healthy male volunteers and put them through extreme periods of calorie restriction- 1600 calories to be precise, which closely resembles modern day dieting ambitions. The result? The subjects became lethargic in an effort to conserve energy, became completely preoccupied with food, thinking about it all day. As a result of the deprivation many were suffering from depression, anxiety, mood swings, were highly irritable, their mental states declined, some took up smoking to resist food cravings, some would sneak and hide food, and the list goes on.
Do any of those symptoms sound familiar to you?
Do any of them sound like dieting?
Now these responses are our bodies natural defence mechanisms. Warning signs that we need to eat. They are beautiful feats of organic engineering and our current culture’s mentality is how can we override this defence mechanism to be thin? How can we find hacks to fit into that dress or suit or swimwear? Our bodies are a marvel of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and now we want to ‘hack’ them so we can conform to what big brands and gyms, amongst others, want to sell us.
To become the unattainable perfect specimen like the models we see plastered everywhere on billboards and fashions magazines. Those models who are airbrushed and so often starving. Dehydrated. Over trained in the gym. Missing menstrual cycles and feeling the sting low libidos. These are often the covers of our ‘health’ magazines!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying every six packed Adonis is starving and miserable. Of course not. What I’m saying is that those kinds of people with the Grecian looking bodies are often in the minority. Realistically they have to do very little in comparison to the average man or woman to attain what they have but they are put on a pedestal for the rest of us to adore and buy what they’re selling.
4. DIETINIG MAKES BIGTORY OK- When your diet fails it leaves you feeling like a failure with the added bonus that our society then lumps you with the stigma that you’re lazy and didn’t have the willpower to succeed. If people see you trying to lose weight then you’re a ‘good’ fat person because you’re trying to fit into the cultural norm and friends, family, and co-workers will reward you with well-meaning statements like ‘good for you’, and ‘you’re so inspiring’ but what these statements are really saying are that you are unacceptable as you are and you must change. BUT if you don’t bother to diet or you’re taking a break then you are officially a ‘bad’ fat person and they will see you as fair game for insult and bigotry! Our society thinks it’s ok to shame fat people into slimming down as though it’s a moral issue how much you weigh. What people who don’t struggle with their weight need to understand is that it is not so simple as just eat less move more and I sometimes have to stop myself from becoming exasperated by the privilege expressed by those who have never truly struggled with their weight feeling as though the answer is simple and fat people just aren’t trying hard enough.
5. DIETS AREN’T ENJOABLE- Dieting is all about promising pleasure in the future and nothing to do with pleasure in the here and now. Pleasure is an essential human need and is inextricably linked with health but engaging in dieting offers no respite or taste of pleasure. It is all about a future pleasure that you’re always chasing but can never actually achieve.
6. THE BEHAVIOR OF DIETING CAN BE ADDICTIVE- I wasn’t telling the complete truth in the last point. It can be pleasurable. In a cruel twist of fate, the anticipation of dieting can be extremely pleasurable for many as you scheme out your new life in your new body not to mention the dieting itself can often give highs of feeling in control. You get that excited rush of, ‘yes! This time I’m going to do it. This time I can’t fail.’ The price of failing however each time leaves you more and more bitter and dejected, but that initial pleasure is strangely addictive, and you keep coming back for more. A dopamine rush caused by the fantasy of what could potentially be if you could only find that willpower!
7. DIETING CAN MAKE US ANXIOUS AROUND FOOD- We are currently in a time where fear mongering has us all worrying constantly that one wrong step could be disease, illness, and/or death. The fear is that sugar will give us cancer and diabetes, that eggs are toxic if you go over the ‘limit’, red meat is a fast track to heart disease, trans fats should NEVER be eaten unless you want to take weeks, maybe even months off of your life, dairy has to be non-fat, nuts are hyper fattening and more than a handful (whatever that is) will give you a bubble butt. Chocolate is evil unless it’s bitter dark chocolate in which case you have to eat it otherwise you’re at risk of multiple diseases and you have to chug down exactly half a glass of red wine daily, for good measure like the French do! Most conventional fruit don't have any nutrients in them so you’ll need to visit your local farmers market to make sure you can get your pesticide free, organic produce there and for convenience sake you can grab a loaf of the most dense, boring rye-spelt-sourdough loaf, and happy meat that was blindfolded when it’s mother was taken away so the stress wouldn’t permeate its meat and transmit its trauma to your body. I mean honestly, you’ve done well to make it alive this far but you can’t relax if you want to be healthy…. Oh, and don’t get me started on the powders and supplements you’ll be needing. You know what, I’m overwhelming you. As long as you’ve got a reliable probiotic we can start from there. You are taking one right?
Do you see what is happening?
You are being backed tighter and tighter into a corner of restriction and told the alternative is poor health. But what is really happening is that we are becoming more and more anxious around food and more and more stressed. We have new, unofficial eating disorders, like orthorexia nervosa, where the obsession is on ‘clean eating’. This is creating a cultural boogy-man and on an individual level it is creating chronic stress, which, ironically, time and time again, the research shows actually to be a big culprit for weakening our immune systems and making us susceptible to many illnesses.
8. YOU CAN GAIN BACK EVEN MORE WEIGHT- So as you’ve experienced time and time again that your diet keeps failing, you might recognise this pattern. It’s called weight cycling or you might know it better as yo-you dieting. It’s when the weight you previously lost comes back. Even if you keep it off for a year, after two to five years, most people will not only have regained the same weight they lost but additional weight; One third to two thirds of people according to the research.
9. YOU CAN LOSE PRECIOUS MUSCLE- Well, don’t forget about the loss of lean muscle tissue when you diet. Naturally you want that muscle tissue as it keeps you strong which aside from the practical day to day advantages also aids in injury prevention. Muscle helps to regulate things like blood sugar levels which is crucial in preventing and managing diabetes, helps with bone density which is good in the case of osteoporosis, and can combat with high blood pressure amongst other wonderful benefits and probably still more undiscovered.
Muscle is also touted as raising your metabolic expenditure, as in the more muscle you have the more calories you burn. While this is true, it’s not our focus, but it is ironic that combined with the loss of all those fantastic benefits I just listed, when you diet, you lower your muscle mass and therefore your caloric expenditure which is what diets don’t tell you.
The more you diet ‘successfully’, the more weight you will lose. Weight will be comprised of both muscle and fat as well as water and more. Even if you’re trying to lose just fat by maintaining a high protein diet, the trade off isn’t a simple mathematical formula for everyone. So the more weight you lose, the more muscle you lose and many of the benefits that go with it. But then it gets even better. Well worse actually, because weight cycling, (that process I just explained of losing weight and then gaining back even more) means you lose muscle, but then when you regain the weight you originally had, you are now fatter, even if you’re the same weight as before your diet.
Well now you have even less muscle than you did before but you still weigh the same. And this is just another way dieting can be so destructive in that you’re losing more and more precious muscle each time and gaining back more fat.
That wasn't an exhaustive list of the negative effects of dieting by the way. There are even more!
So can you see how being proactive in trying to lose weight by dieting is a vicious cycle that is almost guaranteed to leave you worse off?
IS THERE ANY ESCAPE???
But what’s the alternative?
To be passive? Definitely not!
I’ll get to my belief of the answer at the end but first are you beginning to understand that if dieting fails this often how can you be to blame?
The cycle of dieting in of itself is often, if not always a contradiction of health. Now I can’t define your perception of health. I'm just a guide and one of many. The fallacy of the diet industry is that there is some guru with the answer and some secret code to crack. That you haven't achieved it yet because you've not been doing it right or you've not found the one for you. That ‘you’ failed the diet and ‘you’ just have to keep searching for the perfect fit. You then convince yourself that the horrible feeling you experience through dieting will disappear when you hit your goal. That once you lose the weight you’ll figure out how to balance your eating and everything will be ok. As though then you can magically enjoy food, but the reality is not so. It only gets worse.
You rationalise your suffering because of this culture you live. Because this is the norm.
Here are some quick ways people rationalise perpetuating their misery of dieting:
1. YOU USE HEALTH AS A JUSTIFICATION- You may well be in the camp that says you’re not trying to lose weight to get wash board abs. That it’s to help alleviate joint pains, skin chafing, back pain, mobility issues, disease, and the list goes on. You and your doctor have been doing what humans do best. Trying your damn hardest to fix a problem. And the problems are worth fixing but dieting as the way to do it, statistically, is not on your side. Remember that 90-95% rate of failure?
I mean, what if even doctors and health professionals got it wrong?
Have you ever heard of a doctor being wrong before?
It can be hard to challenge established authority but could you consider that there might be a chance they are encouraging you to pursue disordered eating. Never intentionally of course but that they too could be susceptible to the skinny culture we live in?
2. YOU COMPARE YOURSELF TO SOMEONE ELSE OR YOUR OLD WEIGHT TO DEFINE WHAT YOU SHOULD BE- We are not all the same. We come in various different shape and sizes and yet we like to believe that if someone else weighs x amount then we should too but genetics don’t give a damn about fashion.
Also, looking back on when you were a teenager as a measure for what you should weigh is not a reasonable or fair measure to give to yourself. Bear in mind that when you were 18/19 years old your body was still developing and probably a lot more active and I believe that is the mistake many make of thinking that was their ‘natural’ weight that they just need to get back to.
3. YOU BELIEVE WEIGHT LOSS WILL MAKE EVERYTHING ELSE IN LIFE BETTER- You believe that achieving this weight loss will fix a problem and if you've ever lost weight then it might have temporarily seemed like it, but it is a deceptive trap that lures you in, taking a little more of your life force from you then spitting you back out only to lure you back in again.
If you're not building sustainable eating habits that bring inner peace then you're banking on failure. We live in a skinny obsessed world and so regardless of health it can of course seem like losing weight can improve our situations. If I'm skinny I'll get that job. I'll get that guy/girl. I'll get that acting role. I'll get more confidence. The sad answer is that in many instances you probably will. In life we all do some insane things that are potentially not ‘good for us’. If you're a model for example, starving yourself for two years could potentially earn you a small fortune where as if you'd rejected the plea to lose weight by your agent then you may not have another job. Some will justify the risk and deal with the consequences later. Whether you're a model, actor, trying to impress your boss, your partner, your family, or any other kind of dieter, you may believe that the end justifies the means. That is a quandary I can't answer and remain neutral on. Life is an adventure and we learn from all our actions. Whether they result in something empowering or disempowering is subjective. I will only say that for me the price of our souls and inner contentedness can not be measured by the scales or a pay check or even a new partner. What if you get the new partner you've always dreamed of having? Well now he or she expects you to stay this thin. At least in your mind you make it so and so you maintain the misery of dieting.
BEING FAT= UNHEALTHY. BEING THIN=HEALTHY. DIETING=UNHEALTHY???
So if you remember my point earlier, I shared that fat was not always unhealthy but even if you stick to the notion that fat is ALWAYS unhealthy, then do you see a problem has emerged? If thin supposedly equals healthy and you are fat but dieting is unhealthy then what are you going to do?
Here are some quick solutions that I believe can offer some relieve from the crazy world of dieting:
1. HEALTH AT EVERY SIZE- The idea that human bodies come in all different shapes and sizes and that we need to respect our bodies and others and pursue health rather than an impossible skinny ideal. It’s a lot deeper than that and I’ll be going into it in a lot more detail in my next two posts.
2. INTUITIVE EATING- I’ll also be talking about this concept a lot in upcoming posts but put simply this is another call to reject dieting and begin eating according to what your body is communicating to you through internal hunger signals and experience of eating rather than following someone else’s prescription of what you should eat.
The following 2 books really helped me to unstick myself from dieting culture and I know they can help you too- They are: Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch and Body Respect by Linda Bacon. These two books discuss the topics of Intuitive eating and Health at Every Size that I mentioned as two powerful, powerful solutions to the dangers of dieting.
IS DIETING BAD?
And finally, does that mean dieting is bad? I’ll let you make your own mind up on that one. I personally prefer to try not use absolute terms. I couldn’t possibly know for certain if diets don’t work for everyone. Many athletes and sporting demographics for one example will, by my understanding, need to follow some kind of dietary regime that may involve complex methods of weight and nutrient manipulation etc... This is not intended as a piece to attack anyone’s method who feels they are succeeding but to help those who feel they are floundering and breathlessly gasping for a solution.
For me, I was just sick of the emotional rollercoaster of dieting. The ‘yes I can do it’ speech every time I started, filled with hope, and then caving in, 1 week, 1 month, 2 days later, and feeling like shit. Crying and eating to numb the failure. The failure that I wasn’t good enough. Not disciplined enough. It’s strange for me to now even say that as I escaped the cycle a long time ago now and for me I can never go back.
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